She Speaks – Mental Health

By Lillian Barkley, World YWCA Intern. 

My friend, knowing I was planning on studying abroad, shared some advice from their semester abroad: just travel alone, wander around and get lost in different cities. As a woman who loves her alone time as much as travel, this sounded perfect. The only problem was that my friend’s advice came from a male perspective.

I quickly learned the difference this made when I traveled to Rome, my first venture out of Switzerland. I was fine on the plane ride there and on the bus to my hostel. But the walk to and from my hostel was completely different.

The walk wasn’t especially dangerous. My hostel wasn’t in the best neighborhood, but I was close to the train station and it was late afternoon. But I was reminded of a quote by Sylvia Plath: “Yes, my consuming desire is to mingle with road crews, sailors and soldiers, barroom regulars—to be a part of a scene, anonymous, listening, recording—all this is spoiled by the fact that I am a girl, a female always supposedly in danger of assault and battery.”

I knew about the catcalling culture in Rome beforehand, and it’s not like I haven’t been catcalled before, but I didn’t expect the ferocity I experienced. Within the span of 15 minutes, I was followed by a group of three men who continued to whistle and call at me. The whistles themselves were short and sharp, the same tones used to call a dog. The worst was when I passed a policeman and he catcalled me.

I could feel my breaths getting shorter and my heart rate rising with an increasing feeling of dizziness and nausea. It was a panic attack – mild and controllable, but still a panic attack.

Women are twice as likely as men to have depression and anxiety disorders. There are biological factors that play into this, such as different levels of estrogen, progesterone and serotonin.

But, many of these chemicals are triggered by exposure to stress. In my opinion, based on my experiences, women encounter more everyday stress – just making a routine commute on foot or public transit means women are constantly on the defensive because we are taught that we are constantly under threat of aggression.

A 2004 study in the journal Personal and Individual Differences seems to support this. “The women rated their life events as more negative and less controllable than the men,” according to the study’s abstract. “The women scored significantly higher than the men in chronic stress and minor daily stressors.”

Though the disparity of safety based on gender is not a new phenomenon, the connection to mental health effects is not always made.

Feeling the need to carry keys, pepper spray or defense keychains is too common and certainly isn’t beneficial for stress and anxiety. As Plath wrote, “Yes, God, I want to talk to everybody as deeply as I can. I want to be able to sleep in an open field, to travel west, to walk freely at night…”

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